It’s time to Stop Using Fabric Softeners & Dryer Sheets

found in clothing care 17

I recently did an Instagram story about why you shouldn’t use fabric softener after buying a pair of secondhand leggings that were full of it. There were a lot of further questions and requests to have the information somewhere more permanent, so here it is! 🙂

Let’s cut right to it, you shouldn’t use fabric softeners. They’re not only bad for your clothes (especially athletic wear which we’ll get into) but also not great for your health or the environment, it’s just not worth it. Fabric softeners became popular in the mid-1900’s because the dyes, detergents, and dryers were harsh on clothes making them rough and scratchy. However with better technology, fabrics, and detergents they’re no longer necessary, yet still very commonly used and most people don’t think twice about it.

How they work

Fabric softeners typically come in 2 different forms – a liquid used in the washing machine or a coated sheet used in the dryer. They are designed to prevent static, help with wrinkles, add a scent, and make the materials feel softer. They do this by covering the fabric in a thin, lubricating film. This coating prevents static by making the garments slippery to reduce friction and the softener adds a positive charge to neutralise the negative static charge. It also helps to separate the fibres making things like towels fluffier. Additionally they are typically scented and designed so the scent will remain in the fabric. Sounds nice, so…

Why are they bad for your clothes?

You might have noticed on some tags, especially with performance clothing, they specifically say NOT to use fabric softeners. This is because the waxy coating can interfere with moisture wicking and absorption properties – athletic fabrics are designed to wick moisture from the skin to the outside of the fabric where it can evaporate, but if you cover the fabric in a waxy coating it’s like plugging up a drinking straw and blocks the ability to move moisture. The coating also builds up over time making it harder for water and detergent to permeate the fabric so odours and stains are more difficult to get out and become sealed in. I get questions about why workout clothes can still have a smell even after washing, and my first response is always to ask if the person uses fabric softeners/dryer sheets, which is almost always the problem.

Although the fabrics might feel extra soft and nice at first, this build-up of fatty film overtime makes fabrics less absorbent. This is especially a problem with towels which obviously need to absorb a lot of moisture, as well as bed linens and underwear/base-layers which absorb sweat for comfort.

Fabric softeners can also stain your clothes, liquid softeners can occasionally leave blueish or grey stain spots on garments and overtime the waxy build-up can also cause yellowing on whites.

Finally they can leave residue in your machines which isn’t good for the machines and also means you can get fabric softener residue on clothes even when you’re not using it in that load.


They’re also not particularly safe…

For you

Studies have found that liquid fabric softeners can actually make fabrics more flammable, which no one wants.

One of the biggest issues with fabric softener is that they contain fragrance and the ingredients of fragrance don’t have to be disclosed, so we don’t know what exactly is in the product and there’s the potential they can contain toxic ingredients. Although in some countries like Canada cleaning products actually don’t have to disclose all ingredients anyway so it’s not just the fragrance where there are transparency issues.

Also a major ingredient in a lot of fabric softeners is Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs or “quats”) which are used to help combat static but can cause skin and respiratory irritation. Studies of medial professionals who used cleaning products with quats (they are also anti-bacterial) found an increase in asthma in those who were regularly exposed to them.

For the environment

QACs don’t easily biodegrade, especially in water, and can be toxic to aquatic organisms.This is obviously extra worrisome since as a laundry product they go directly into out water systems.

Fabric softeners can also contain petroleum or palm oil derived ingredients. They also might not be cruelty-free/vegan – an ingredient found in some fabric softeners is Dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride which is derived from animal fat.

I also wonder if the coating and synthetic compounds in fabric softeners effects the biodegradability of clothing but haven’t been able to find any studies on it.

What are some alternatives?

Air-dry your clothes, it helps reduce static! I also really encourage air-drying because it not only saves a lot of energy (and $) but really increases the longevity of your clothes. There’s less rubbing and wear, colour fading and shrinkage from heat, plus dryers break down spandex/elastane faster causing your clothes to become misshapen, and they cause microscopic damage to the fabric – just look in the lint tray, those are all fibres that have been broken off or pulled from the fabric! Air-dryed clothes will definitely feel less soft than using a dryer or especially if you’re used to fabric softeners, but you can try just putting them in the dryer for few minutes to fluff them up if that’s a problem.

If you NEED to use a dryer, wool dryer balls can not only help soften your clothes but also cut down on drying time which saves energy. I’ve also heard of people adding essential oils to their dryer balls for some scent, but make sure you don’t use too much/stain your clothes, and use oils that are okay with heat. Some people also say dryer balls help with static – I haven’t tried them but I’d love to hear if you use wool dryer balls and how they work!

Also don’t over-dry your clothes, the dryness is what causes static so taking clothes out when they just dry will help reduce static.

Avoid synthetic fabrics as these tend to be the ones with static issues, you can also keep your natural and synthetic garments separate to help with static – fluffy natural fibres rubbing against the synthetics builds up the static charge. It’s also a great idea to wash your synthetics in a Guppyfriend Bag which not only keeps them from rubbing against your other clothes but also catches the plastic microfibres they release into the water.

Another option I hear a lot about is adding a quarter or half cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle as a fabric softener (although be sure not to use with bleach), again I’ve never found the need for my clothes to be softer but if you’ve tried this I’d be interested in how it works!

As with any changes it takes some time to adjust, but everyone I know whose stopped using fabric softeners says they were basically just doing it out of habit or thought you were “supposed to” and having stopped won’t ever go back.

Remove fabric softener from clothing

Can you remove fabric softener already in clothes?

So I tried a few things on the leggings I bought that were full of fabric softener; first I washed them a couple times but this didn’t do much. Then I tried soaking them in water and castille soap for a few hours and this definitely made an impact although I could still smell the fabric softener. The most recent thing I’ve tried is soaking them in some vinegar and water and this also seemed to have helped a bit, but the smell is still there. Throughout this I’ve also been hanging them up on a drying rack to air-out as much as possible.

While I have definitely gotten rid of most of the smell (and it doesn’t give me a headache anymore just wearing them) it’s difficult to say if I’m only removing the fragrance or the actual fabric softener coating. The leggings still have a slightly waxy feel to them but it’s hard to gauge if any progress has been made. Hopefully as I keep wearing and washing them I can get rid of more of the softener but I don’t know if they’ll ever be back to the way they were originally.

If you have any other tips or suggestions for removing fabric softener please leave them in the comments!



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17 Responses

  1. Eleanor Ackerman
    | Reply

    Loved the article and I agree totally with what you say. Yes fabric conditioner is HIDEOUS! The smell makes me almost retch. You can smell people from some distance as they approach you!

    As for the “Static” issue, we’ve never had that problem at all.

    We wash our clothes with an amazing washing powder called ACDO. It’s available from a few shops in the north of England but can also be got from; It’s a powder with a small smell and doesn’t need much for a great wash. The clothing feels brand new again after using it. Even the labels look and feel new! What is also good is that this product alone does the job and nothing else needs be added.

    We have used this product for more than 7 years. We moved down south and brought 30 small boxes with us so haven’t yet tried the mail order. I hope they deliver to other countries………..

  2. bonnie hale
    | Reply

    I have found that using white vinegar in the wash really makes my towels nice and soft.

  3. philippa gerry
    | Reply

    So glad to read the wise words about fabric softener. I’ve just bought a 99% cotton jacket from a charity shop. Arriving home, it’s possible to smell the fabric softener. It is soaking in boiling water plus bicarbonate of soda, in the back room with the door shut and the window open. After that it will be boiling water with white vinegar, which strips grease. After that possibly hydrogen peroxide and boiling water. Then we will see. It might just go back. I don’t want it to contaminate other fabrics or the inside of the washing machine.
    Normally I use: ecover, wash balls (organic), vinegar, soda, soda bicarb, for various processes, not all together. I try to respect the water tables and the environment – and myself. Thank you for your useful information. I would like to see all chemicals taken from wash products, also bleach.

  4. Alexandra
    | Reply

    Vinegar is a fantastic way to eliminate odors from clothes: sweat, smoke, bonfire, wet dog, etc. Vinegar kills the bacteria that causes the sweat odor and makes everything feel soft.

    I use vinegar in my washer instead of fabric softener. It gets rid of static cling, odors and sanitizes everything.

    Baking soda helps make whites whiter, but can’t be used with vinegar. It works better than bleach and doesn’t make things yellow like bleach does.

  5. Natalie
    | Reply

    Hi Erin, I know this is an older feed but I wondered if you knew how to prevent static from clothes? I use a more natural based laundry detergent and I don’t use fabric softener, but my clothes are really quite static even when they’re air dried. Any ideas?

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Hm that’s interesting, typically clothes don’t get static-y when air dried since it’s the rubbing together that causes the static. So I’m not really sure why that’s happening, but may some things you can try are:
      – Washing synthetics separately or in a separate laundry bag as they are often the cause of static, so reducing them rubbing against other clothes might help.
      – Using vinegar as a fabric softener – some people say it helps with static also. 🤷‍♀️

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

      • Jane Lingle
        | Reply

        Hi Verena Erin, aluminum foil balls work to remove static. Use 3-4 square feet per ball. Squeeze together tightly and remove any sharp edges that might get caught on clothing, they should be 2-3″ across.. 2-3 balls per load. These will last for months.!

    • Tina
      | Reply

      I find if I dry my clothes too long they get static. Try cutting down on the drying time.

    • PattyP
      | Reply

      Thanks for the informative info! I’ve always hated the feeling perfume of dryer sheets which gives me terrible sinus headaches. I used to live in the city, where if seemed that no matter where Iived, my next door neighbor’s dryer vent blew just outside my bedroom window. I gag when someone walks near me, imbued with overwhelming scent they can no longer detect.

      One note though – it’s safe to mix vinegar and bleach. You may be thinking of the fact that when ammonia and bleach are combined, they make nerve gas, which can cause serious health effects.

  6. Patricia
    | Reply

    Interested to read how fabric softener can clog sports wear and retain “sweaty smell”. I do know Perchlorethylene used in dry cleaning machines removes grease/fat, but whether sport wear can be drycleaned to remove fabric softener residue depends on the garment. Best to speak to your dry cleaner whether a once off clean to remove softener can be done but there is also the cost of cleaning to consider.

  7. Amanda
    | Reply

    Try soaking in bicarb soda overnight before washing to remove smells. I use it for all sweaty clothing – works wonders.
    By the way – love your work.

  8. Deborah
    | Reply

    Great post, Erin! When I buy things at a thrift or consignment shop, they always seem to have that fabric softener smell. A vinegar wash helps, like you’ve found, but I’ve been alternating that with oxygen bleach (hydrogen peroxide) in the load the next time around. As it works, it degrades to water and oxygen gas, and it seems to remove fragrances that the vinegar doesn’t. (It’s also good for things like towels that need to be sanitized occasionally.) Like you, I’m unsure if it’s removing all the waxy gunk in one shot, but over time it seems to get fabrics back to their untreated texture.

    When things do need to go in the dryer, I have wool dryer balls, a couple of the bumpy silicone dryer balls, and a pair of reuseable antistatic dryer sheets I found at Earth’s General Store years ago. Even in the coldest part of our Edmonton winters when static is worst, everything except polyester fleeces comes out static-free with that combination.

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Thanks for sharing those tips Deb!

  9. Rose
    | Reply

    Recently, I’ve started to use Castile Soap(DESERT ESSENCE Thoroughly Clean Face Wash 32 Fluid Ounces) to wash dishes as well as my hands. In addition, I used it as a detergent. It provided gently soft finish to my clothes with a natural scent! I realized I can do without fabric softeners and wanted to share my experience with you. 🙂

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      Thanks for sharing Rose! That’s great it worked well for you!

      I’ve tried using Dr. Bronner’s castille soap in the laundry and personally didn’t like it as much as detergent, but I use it to wash clothes when travelling which is great cause you can just bring one multi-purpose soap 🙂

  10. Jailyn
    | Reply

    We have hard water and clothes come out very stiff, so I use a mineral-based water softener in the wash. As far as I know it’s environmentally safe, but have you read anything concerning about it? I also like that it comes packaged in cardboard that doesn’t have a coating.

    • Verena Erin
      | Reply

      I don’t know much about it, it shouldn’t have any affect on clothes but I’m not sure about a larger environmental impact.

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